The Liminal Game - Explorations on the Edge of Land Article

© Dave Pickford

Deep water soloing pioneer Dave Pickford explores his attraction to this climbing discipline that brings him closest to the edge in the liminal space between land and sea.

It's a blue summer's day, somewhere at the beginning of things. 

The beach carves out into the sun. Silence and light merge where the shingle meets the English Channel. An offshore breeze ruffles the wide water of Worbarrow Bay. I run into the sea and swim straight out, with the easy confidence of a nine-year-old boy. The water isn't cold, and refracted sunlight warms my body as I swim. Gulls are flying overhead, diving and turning. The cliffs to the south, over Worbarrow Tout, are gold and topped with tufts of yellow grass. To the west, the chalk of Flower's Barrow shines in the sun. I can see the land behind and sense the wind moving across the water. Out at sea, away from the noise and haste, I can dream of the world ahead of me. It's beautiful here. 

The consequences of a 4 knot tidal current meeting a Force 8 gale are spectacularly clear at Morte Point in North Devon.  © Dave Pickford
The consequences of a 4 knot tidal current meeting a Force 8 gale are spectacularly clear at Morte Point in North Devon.
© Dave Pickford

After a while, I look over my right shoulder and notice that the beach doesn't look the same. My idea was to go as far out as I could before heading back to shore. The cross-offshore wind has created a steady current on the surface, which is moving me westwards towards the chalk of Flower's Barrow. I quickly work out that the wind-current is running due west down the beach, and I know that as long as I swim in a diagonal line I will reach the land eventually. I've sailed across it before, and feel I know this place. 

I stick to my plan of swimming across the direction of the wind. Sure enough, that distant bank of rust-coloured shingle slowly becomes larger as I close in. My plan is working, even though the wind is stronger here away from the shelter of the cove. I can see a figure on the beach now, his arms waving. As I reach the shore, I roll through the gently breaking surf and feel the slow pressure of the shingle under my toes. My dad gives me a towel and a telling-off: don't swim out like that again in an offshore wind.

But I don't get why he's scolding me. The situation was under control, and I never felt in any danger. Children sometimes know more about the facts on the ground than their parents, as any kid who gets up to mischief knows. I understood what was happening in the sea, and felt somehow that the sea understood me, too. That day was the beginning, in a way, of a lifetime of explorations on the edge of land. 


That swim more than thirty years ago in Worbarrow Bay prefigured my life as an explorer of sea cliffs and of the sea itself. It also set out why it's a very good idea to respect it. The sea, like the mountains, doesn't care about anyone or anything. It's a primal force at the heart of nature.

A useful, potentially life-preserving skill for any sea cliff climber is strong swimming ability. If you're going to climb above the sea, you're likely at certain times to enter it both by necessity and by accident. The practice of climbing without ropes above the sea is one of the most powerful experiences we can have in a natural environment; it's also one of the least understood.

Why is the sea itself so fascinating? In The Sea Inside, Philip Hoare explains why coastal areas exert a powerful existential draw: "The sea defines us, connects us, separates us. Most of us experience only its edges, our available wilderness on a crowded island… And although it seems constant, it is never the same. One day the shore will be swept clean, the next covered by weed; the shingle itself rises and falls. Perpetually renewing and destroying, the sea proposes a beginning and an ending, an alternative to our landlocked state, an existence to which we are tethered when we might rather be set free." 

Hoare's proposition configures the sea as a space in which we might attain some kind of spiritual awakening. At the same time, the coast becomes its ritual ground, a place simultaneously sacred and profane where life and death might be blended, reordered, and magnified. It's the ultimate liminal zone; a boundary between land and water, and between life and death.

Tim Emmett jumps in after the first solo ascent of Dead Choughed (E6 6b or 7b/S2) at The Castle, Pembrokeshire, in 2008.  © Dave Pickford
Tim Emmett jumps in after the first solo ascent of Dead Choughed (E6 6b or 7b/S2) at The Castle, Pembrokeshire, in 2008.
© Dave Pickford

One of the best ways of entering this zone is through sea cliff climbing, and through one style of sea cliff climbing in particular. Deep water soloing is a very special dimension of the sport of rock climbing. The safety net of the water beneath allows us to climb alone and unroped in the most unencumbered style possible. Of course, you can do it only if the sea and rock conditions allow it. To be successful at deep water soloing, just as with mountaineering, you have to be in the right place at the right time. Achieving this can sometimes be extremely complicated, which contributes to the beauty of the pursuit. Climbing is a physical manifestation of Wallace Stevens' concept of 'the fascination of what's difficult'. Or, as British climber Ben Moon once remarked "If it was easy it wouldn't be hard, would it?"

The great thing about deep water soloing is that if you screw things up high above the sea, you'll likely get a chance to fight another day - if you're doing everything right. Some of the most powerful memories in climbing are not the things you did first try, easily within your limit. Rather, they're the climbs that you either just managed to do by the skin of your teeth, or the routes that spat you off in spectacular style and you had to return to realise another day. This is never more true than in deep water soloing, which is to climbing what single-handed sailing is to seafaring: it's one of the most demanding and also one of the best things you can do in the vertical world. 


'DWS' kicked off in the UK in the late 1990s. Back then, I was spending most of my school holidays near the Dorset coast, where I could climb as often as I was able to. In August 1998, age seventeen, I was staring wide-eyed at the 45 degree overhanging wall above Stair Hole's East Cave at Lulworth, Dorset, with a mixture of trepidation and excitement. Pete Oxley's mega-classic Mark of the Beast takes this awesome wall head on. 

It's a perfect line up a unique piece of rock, and one of the best deep water solos in the UK. I'd climbed quite a few routes of the grade before, but sport climbing is different: up there I'd be on my own. I set off before I could have second thoughts, climbing quickly through the first section; big pulls on big holds through super-steep terrain. I shook out for a few minutes at the half height rest, where you can relax before the upper crux. Then I went for it. The upper section is defined by a series of increasingly powerful moves, the very last of which is the crux. There were a few shouts of encouragement from the ledges below as I climbed higher. I thought the top was in reach - it looked so close. But then, the famous move bared its dragon's teeth: from a couple of shallow pockets, I spied what looked like a hold out left, made a wild lunge for it, and hit something that wasn't a hold at all. Boom! Splashdown. 

Two seconds later, I find myself swimming in the English Channel, my friends cheering the fact that I got to the last move on my first try. It was a revelation, and the beginning of a lifetime's fascination with this style of climbing. I realised I could climb a route that was close to my limit without a rope, free as a gull flying across the waves. I was hooked. A little later that summer, I went back to the East Cave and sent Mark of the Beast one evening, as a north-easterly wind blew out through the cave under me, sketching strange shapes across the wide, blue water. Soon, I'd be moving on to the harder line to the left, Adrenochrome, one of the finest routes in Britain. The fascination of what's difficult never stops.

The revelation of deep water soloing transformed my experience of climbing. From that summer onwards, I continued to push into the twilight zone of my own physical limits and, simultaneously, the psychological height limit at which I was prepared to fall into the sea. The process deepened my powerful addiction to climbing, and at the same time heightened my passion for the sea instilled at an early age while sailing with my dad. 

Dave Pickford on the first ascent of The Bandersnatch (E6 6a or 7a+/S2) at Hollow Caves Bay, Pembrokeshire, in 2008.   © Dave Pickford
Dave Pickford on the first ascent of The Bandersnatch (E6 6a or 7a+/S2) at Hollow Caves Bay, Pembrokeshire, in 2008.
© Dave Pickford

Over the years that followed, I continued to push the edge of the envelope high above deep water. Some climbs were wild, some were foolish, and others were textbook cases of just getting away with it. In 1999, I made the second ascent of For Whom The Swell Tolls, another hard Oxley masterpiece at Connor Cove on the Swanage cliffs. The climbing is sustained and technical; the crux, as with Mark of the Beast, is right at the top. It's much higher than the Lulworth routes; the hardest move could be sixty feet above the sea at low tide.

I went to the crag alone one evening in July. I abseiled to brush away the thick coating of dusty lichen that accumulates after the winter rains.  I swung out quickly along the hanging rail that approaches the edge of the vast sea-level cavern to the west. Inside the cavern, the swell boomed and surged. I reached the point where the route blasts up towards that dauntingly smooth, grey headwall. 

I took stock here for a minute or two before pressing on; an oystercatcher flew low over the sea to my right, its shrill call breaking the silence. I used it as a starting-pistol; it's showtime. The headwall was suddenly directly above me. I pulled strongly into the complex series of moves that form the crux. A sequence of layaways and crimps led to the final move: a big lunge for a jug below the final ledge. I could see it, but it looked miles away. I briefly looked down. The sea glints far below, like a strange beast sleeping beneath the vastness of the wall, its belly rising and falling with the motion of the swell. It's waiting, it seems. Just waiting. It's got time, after all. 

But I don't.

Suddenly, my left hand exploded off the intermediate sloper and caught the jug as my left foot popped off a tiny smear. Both feet cut loose and I grabbed the jug with both hands. I'd done it. What a route. I was breathing hard and shaking with adrenaline. Sometimes it feels like it shouldn't be possible to climb solo in this style, but it is possible - and that's the thing that makes deep water soloing so addictive. 


Anyone can have too much of a good thing, and there's a caveat in all this too. Even in good conditions, deep water soloing - particularly if you're alone - is a very serious business. If you have a bad fall and lose consciousness in the sea, or you end up struggling to exit the water, you're in trouble. In that situation, without a quick rescue even the strongest swimmer can drown. 

In early 2004, just after I spent a few weeks establishing the first routes on the tiny island of Laoliang in Thailand's Andaman Sea, I got an email from a friend to say that Damian Cook, one of the pioneers of deep water soloing in the UK, had drowned in Mallorca. I was truly shocked; we'd shared many climbs together. He'd fallen off a route at Cova del Diablo and had been caught in a rip current. It was the end of winter, and the sea was cold; he couldn't exit at the usual place, tried to swim around the point to another landing place, but the current swept him away before he reached it.

Damian was a strong swimmer, and his death was a sobering reminder of the awesome power of the sea, and the fact that deep water soloing is only as safe as the water that lies underneath. If the tide is falling and it's too shallow, or if the swell is too strong to safely exit the water, then DWS can easily be as dangerous as regular soloing. Possibly, in such circumstances it could even be - paradoxically - more dangerous than soloing above the ground, as you may be tempted to a line that's harder than something you'd ever consider soloing with a hard landing below it.  

Tom Luddington soloing Dark Power (E2 5b or 6a/S3) at Phantom Zawn near Lundy's North Light.   © Dave Pickford
Tom Luddington soloing Dark Power (E2 5b or 6a/S3) at Phantom Zawn near Lundy's North Light.
© Dave Pickford

It's a matter of judgement as to what sea conditions you deem to be safe, but one thing's for sure based on my own experience: it is usually much easier to tell if the water is too shallow than to determine is the swell is too big to safely swim out. The sea is unpredictable. And at the base of a sea cliff, where the swell meets the rocks, it's even more unpredictable than usual. All it takes is a big set of waves, and what looks like a safe exit point from the clifftop can turn into a surging maelstrom. The well-known American professional climber, Michael Reardon - who was an ardent soloist - was swept off the base of Fogher Cliff in County Kerry in the west of Ireland by a rogue wave in summer 2007. His body was never recovered. This tragic incident shows that even for the most experienced sea cliff climber, the sea itself may be much more dangerous than the wall you're climbing. 

My friend Grant Farquhar and I once had a lucky escape while attempting to make the first ever continuous crossing of the gigantic, 17 kilometre long Exmoor Coast Traverse - Britain's longest climb. We were eleven hours deep into our attempt, about three-quarters of the way along, and both mildly hypothermic. It was an hour after high tide, and I suggested swimming a narrow, flooded chasm to the west of Red Cleave to save time. Grant looked at me quizzically: "Maybe best not to, mate," he said. A minute afterwards, a huge set of waves smashed into the chasm, completely filling it with surging whitewater. If we'd been in the chasm at that time, we could easily have drowned. 

I've probably used up more than a cat's nine lives in my climbing career, and don't like to take so many chances these days. Every time you go soloing, even above the sea, the risk of a so-called low-probability, high consequence event taking place rises, in the same way that if you sail back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean continuously, the risk of sailing into a hurricane rises. 

Dave Pickford on the first ascent of Suhali (6b+/S2) in Oman's Musandam Peninsula in 2005, an area with vast DWS potential.  © Dave Pickford
Dave Pickford on the first ascent of Suhali (6b+/S2) in Oman's Musandam Peninsula in 2005, an area with vast DWS potential.
© Dave Pickford

After my friend Damian drowned in 2004, I realised that a vital rule of thumb for safe deep water soloing is that you should never set out on a climb if you think the sea below it looks too wild to swim in. It's a good idea to look at the sea under the route you're climbing from the perspective of being a weaker swimmer than you actually are. If you've taken a big splashdown from fifty feet after a desperate battle with a crux sequence, you'll be hyperventilating, so your swimming ability will be considerably worse than if you went for a swim off the rocks.

Despite all its potential seriousness, deep water soloing is also one of the most magical experiences in climbing. When you're climbing well, the feeling of flow can be powerful. This is amplified several times over when deep water soloing. It's as if a switch is flicked, and you're suddenly on autopilot. The edge of the envelope is pushed a little further out. You eyeball that distant hold, tense, commit, and make the next move. Then you carry on, climbing higher above that deep blue water, the golden evening light flashing off the waves. It's always beautiful up there, high above the waves. 

And if it goes wrong, the sea invites you; at once mesmerising and strange, familiar and utterly mysterious, it is the ultimate landing zone. The sea, as the writer Philip Hoare has pointed out, is where we came from. By falling into the sea, then, we might be returning home. Embraced by the waves and the refracted light, we are uplifted and set free, like falling in love. 


Deep water soloing evolved hard and fast during the noughties. Glamorous images of honed guys and girls on the famous 'DWS' cliffs of the UK, Mallorca and Thailand adorned the glossy pages of climbing magazines. People began exploring well off the beaten track; exotic places like Halong Bay in Vietnam and Palawan in the Philippines now harbour some of the most exciting deep water soloing in the world, not least because of the paradisal setting, perfect rock and amenable sea temperatures. Other, even more far-flung destinations will be discovered in time. 

One of the most appealing things about DWS is that it can take place on cliffs with absolutely no access other than by sea. In fact, some of the best venues must be accessed this way. In the most extreme cases, such as some of the routes in Halong Bay, the only way to descend the climbs is simply to jump off at a particular point, for example a large stalactite protruding from the wall at 15 metres. There's a unique beauty to this; it's almost a perfect geometric reversal of mountaineering, where a pointy summit marks the top of the climb. 

Back home, as the years went by, at some point every summer I returned to soloing, lured back by that magnetic thrill of the dance in the liminal zone between land and water. I pushed the boat out - way too far out sometimes - but always managed to get away with it. Once, halfway along the mega 800 foot traverse of Zodiac at St. Govans' Head in Pembrokeshire, I looked down at the thirty-foot waves booming into the boulder-filled cave 100 feet below. Clearly, this was not deep water soloing just because the sea was below me: it was conventional free soloing, where the consequences of a fall are inevitably fatal. (Zodiac fell down in a huge rockfall a few years later, but the point remains.) 

Meilee Rafe on the technical crux of Anniversary Waltz (E3 5c or 6b/S2) at The Castle, Pembrokeshire.  © Dave Pickford
Meilee Rafe on the technical crux of Anniversary Waltz (E3 5c or 6b/S2) at The Castle, Pembrokeshire.
© Dave Pickford

Other deep water solos on the sea cliffs of Pembrokeshire were equally memorable. One September day in 2001, I raced over to the west face of Mowing Word, alone. I soloed ten routes, culminating in the mega E5 that takes on the challenge of the steepest, smoothest part of the cliff head on: the appropriately-named All at Sea. The tide was falling fast, but I was climbing strongly and confidently. Once I reached the headwall, I glanced down. Big waves were slamming into the base of the cliff, sending spray flying. But what was that yellow colour in the spray? Sand! The tide had fallen so far that the waves were churning up the sandy beach that's only exposed at low spring tide at the base.

I refocused, concentrating hard on the short blank wall that forms the crux. A few sharp pulls on a series of crimps led to a final stretch for a good incut, and the apex of the headwall was in sight. Up here, well over a hundred feet high, I was completely free as I moved alone in a silent, solitary dance under the late summer sun. Deep water soloing becomes conventional free soloing pretty easily on a cliff as big - and as tidal - as the west face of Mowing Word. As long as you can work out where the shadow-line falls between the two, you'll probably be alright. 


The art of climbing exploration is, at least partly, about getting off the beaten track; it enables cliffs that would otherwise never be climbed to be explored. Motivated by getting away from the crowd, I've discovered plentiful new DWS routes - and sometimes whole new crags. Over the years I've found great lines all over; that perfect fifty-foot arête in Oman's Musandam Peninsula, rising up from the crystal-clear water like the protruding bow of an Arabian dhow; that crazy, sea-scalloped wall of ultra-compact overhanging limestone west of Loutro on the south coast of Crete, the strange, conch-shell holds forming a natural rising rightwards traverse; the beautiful, gently overhanging pink wall at Clarence Cove in Bermuda that climbed like a waking dream and became, inevitably, Fifty Shades of Pink; or the utterly bizarre and brilliant route I found near the North Light on Lundy Island, where I traversed about thirty metres along the retaining wall inside a massive cavern-arch to emerge into the sunlight at a single, protruding jug on the arête on the far side.

The climbing was sustained and superb, and this single hold was literally the end of the road; a lone feature on a canvas of blank, almost jet-black granite. The only options were to reverse the line or jump in: I chose the latter. The Ungraspable Phantom was born as I took a refreshing plunge into the Celtic Sea. It remains one of my most thrilling and unlikely deep water solos: a line without an obvious beginning, traversing the interior of a giant cavern, and ending in a no-mans-land of blank granite like a spacecraft cut adrift.

During my voyage around southwest England by stand-up paddleboard, completed over several summers between 2017 and 2022, I found dozens of new crags along Cornwall's Atlantic coast that would be ideal for deep water soloing, particularly with an approach boat. Many are totally invisible from the clifftop, and only one or two of these crags currently have any documented routes. It simply isn't true that the UK has been 'climbed out'; it just requires imagination and some serious hunting around in the liminal zone between land and sea.  There are more new routes left to climb on Britain's sea cliffs than on our inland crags by several orders of magnitude.

Dave Pickford on the second ascent of Windowchrome (8a+, S1) at Stair Hole in 2008, a linkup of Window of Opportunity (7a+).  © Dave Pickford
Dave Pickford on the second ascent of Windowchrome (8a+, S1) at Stair Hole in 2008, a linkup of Window of Opportunity (7a+).
© Dave Pickford

Being creative reaps rewards for the exploratory climber. Back in 2006, a team of us drove over to North Pembrokeshire on a rumour early one morning. A certain Mr. Robertson, one of the key DWS pioneers on the south coast, had found a perfectly-formed barrel of high quality sandstone above a small inlet near St. Davids. It was christened 'Barrel Zawn' and we climbed around a dozen new routes that day, from some short and sweet bouldery climbs to a long traverse line I climbed into the heart of the cave that featured a sketchy exit, made more memorable by the half-dead pigeon (probably the victim of a peregrine attack) flapping in its death-throws on the sloping ledge after the crux. I pulled through the last moves, and the pigeon squawked one final time before plunging into the sea. Terrapigeon thus came into the world, the route's name immortalising the poor bird's fate. 

Deep water soloing creates potential for climbing where otherwise there would be none. This particular cliff is a textbook case. It would be useless for trad climbing, as the base is almost always a sea-filled trench and there's not much natural gear. There's certainly no bouldering there, and people don't put bolts in British sea cliffs as a matter of course. Only with the mindset of the deep water soloist can a cliff such as this come into its own. 

In 2017, I found a small zawn whilst paddling on the Pembrokeshire coast, close to Raming Hole, that had no recorded routes at all. At high tide, I noticed it had at least three metres of water underneath it; just enough. I did four new solos here of varying difficulty, all of them poised on the seaward edge of the zawn. The lefthand one was particularly good, but I didn't record any of them; I felt they were somehow more special left that way. The cliff is so tricky to find that few people would venture there, in any case. Such is the way of these kinds of cliffs: they are elusive prizes that reward the dedicated and the crafty. 

Deep water soloing stands in complete contrast to the classic mountaineering aesthetic: a summit-conquering quest. In opposition to this acquisitive mindset, the soloist might discover perfect limestone overhanging a secret sea cave whilst swimming beneath it, climb a new route completely onsight, and leave the place unmarked and just as mysterious as when they arrived. This is a more appealing aesthetic state, of course, than that of a climber who brandishes a flag on the top of a mountain and takes a selfie.

I had a similar experience in Menorca in 2017, when I found a gorgeous wall of ochre-coloured rock near Cala Morell. I traversed into it and climbed it onsight. It wasn't particularly hard, but the wall had this special feeling of solitude, forming the edge of a small zawn on the outermost point of a tiny island in the middle of the Mediterranean, completely impervious to the yachts and glamorous people in the cove just around the corner. 


When attempting harder and higher lines, having company and solid safety protocols are vital. Gavin Symonds, one of my oldest friends and a regular climbing and watersports companion, was another key pioneer of hard deep water soloing in the UK. In 2008, I hung on a rope in Hollow Caves Bay in South Pembrokeshire, photographing him on San Simeon (an E8 or F8a trad route).

Although the route is entirely above deep water, the crux comes at a cool nineteen metres above the high tide mark. That's over sixty feet. Gavin is a master at the art of the body-angle correction technique needed to enter the water safely in a long fall. I watched him, once again, set up for the big crux lunge up and right to a shallow pocket. As usual for this cliff, conditions were sub-optimal. His right hand flicked out, hovered in a moment of hesitation as his left foot slipped, and he was off. Pirouetting perfectly in the air, he flapped his arms rapidly to attain a vertical 'pole' posture, and locked both hands by his sides as he entered the water like a human bullet. 

Gavin Symonds falls off San Simeon (E8 6c or 8a/S2) at Hollow Caves Bay, prior to making the second solo ascent in 2009.  © Dave Pickford
Gavin Symonds falls off San Simeon (E8 6c or 8a/S2) at Hollow Caves Bay, prior to making the second solo ascent in 2009.
© Dave Pickford

The height limit I'm comfortable with whilst pushing hard on a deep water solo is definitely lower than the crux of San Simeon, and I'm quite happy with that. Some people don't like to swim more than 50 metres to exit the water; others such as myself prefer to solo no higher than about fifteen metres above the water.  

In the same way a proficient deep water soloist knows how to fall into the sea safely from height, a skilled racing driver knows how to balance a car in a high speed corner. The two activities are closely linked through a complex interplay between speed, skill, and judgement. There are a number of interesting links between climbing and motorsport; both disciplines involve using high level technique, intense concentration, intelligence and perfect timing in a fast-moving, high-risk environment.

British climber Johnny Dawes has said that a fast car moving through a high-speed corner is "an unresolved work of art in a physical form". My interest in fast cars and high performance driving is probably linked, I'd guess, to my natural attraction to deep water soloing. 

As the American philosopher Matthew Crawford has explained in his book Why We Drive, "to drive is to exercise one's skill at being free".  Exactly the same thing is also true of deep water soloing. People with a high-risk, high-reward psyche and a desire to master difficult tasks in challenging environments are likely to be drawn to high-octane adventure sports.

There's a lot that deep water soloists can learn from sailors, too, about operating within a reasonable margin of safety. One of the greatest mistakes in the history of seafaring was the route taken on the Titanic's maiden voyage in April 1912. At the time, the vessel was the world's largest ship, and (unwisely) considered unsinkable. The Titanic's captain, E. J. Smith, reportedly made the following statement before the voyage: "I have seen but one vessel in distress in all my years at sea. I never saw a wreck and never have been wrecked nor was I ever in any predicament that threatened to end in disaster of any sort." 

Sarah Garnett on Vista (E2 5b or 6a+/S1) at The Castle, Pembrokeshire.   © Dave Pickford
Sarah Garnett on Vista (E2 5b or 6a+/S1) at The Castle, Pembrokeshire.
© Dave Pickford

Captain Smith's sense of hubris ultimately either led to - or contributed to - the Titanic's famous demise. Sailing much too far north in the North Atlantic, she hit a massive iceberg at her cruising speed of twenty-one knots, and sank in less than three hours. 1500 people lost their lives. Captain Smith's overconfidence was possibly a major factor in the most spectacular disaster in maritime history. 

If you think you might be smarter than the sea - like Captain Smith of R.S. Titanic - or if you think your knowledge or skill is going to somehow protect you from it, the sea is probably going to take a shark-sized bite out of your arse, and possibly help itself to your head as well. 

The American sociologist Diane Vaughan wrote about risk management in The Challenger Launch Decision, a forensic study of the 1986 Challenger Shuttle disaster. Vaughan identifies a process she calls 'the normalisation of deviance' as crucial to its evolution. Vaughan shows how the acceptance of deviance within the team of engineers and rocket scientists resulted in a dangerous design flaw in the joints on the solid rocket boosters. The design team conducted analysis to find their performance limits, but evidence initially interpreted as a 'deviation from expected performance' was later reinterpreted as 'within the bounds of acceptable risk'. 

The normalisation of deviance could also apply to climbing ropeless above a double-overhead swell, or sailing a very large ocean liner through iceberg-infested waters - which we then get away with. Then, believing it's safe to make the same safety shortcut a second time, we do the same thing again. And again. Repeat this process indefinitely, and something will eventually go wrong; the ship sails into the iceberg and sinks, or the climber falls off - and drowns. 

Climbing competence is the concept that you and your partner will be able to extricate yourself from any given situation. If you can't do the route, you have to abseil off it, and so on. In DWS, this is complicated in that you might have to exit the water in a difficult environment whilst fatigued. It's always worth thinking about before you set off into the unknown. Deep water soloing is not necessarily as 'safe' as it's sometimes assumed to be. If the water isn't deep enough - a common problem in tidal waters such as the British coast - then you're in trouble. And if the water is deep enough but the sea is too rough, you're also in trouble. 

Mountains and deserts can be very wild, often inhospitable, and sometimes dangerous places. But they don't have the same dynamic quality that the sea has, which makes it so alluring, so magnificent, and also potentially deadly. Tracy Edwards, skipper of the first all-women team to compete in the Whitbread Round-the-World yacht race, memorably remarked that "the ocean's always trying to kill you… and it doesn't let up." If you share this perspective, rather than Captain E. J. Smith's, then you can become proficient at the great game of exploring on the edge of land. 


Rainbow Bridge: back to the future

The best deep solo in Britain, and possibly one of the best in the world, is Rainbow Bridge at Berry Head in Devon. It's a traverse roughly 850 feet long across the most perfect, compact, technicolored limestone imaginable. There is barely a single loose hold along the entire thing. It features a tough crux section about a third of the way along, but most of the climbing is glorious jug-pulling above deep water. Even at low tide, it's still safe to climb it. 

I first climbed Rainbow Bridge in 1998, when I was seventeen. It was a perfect late summer morning and the whole wall was bathed in blue and green light reflecting off the sea. After I left my friends on the clifftop, there was nobody else around; I was alone on the best piece of rock in southwest England. Gulls and a few oystercatchers floated on the water. The climbing was even better than I'd been told it was. Once I reached the big ledge after the Terminal Zawn, I tied my chalk bag around my head to keep it dry and swam back to the beginning. That afternoon, Mr. Robertson and I did Caveman, the spooky trad climb that takes on the challenge of the huge cave of Old Redoubt head-on. The combination these two completely different routes made for one of the best days of sea cliff climbing I have ever had. 

In the late summer of 2022, I returned to Berry Head on a cool September afternoon as cloud-shadows moved across the water. I realised I hadn't actually climbed the whole of Rainbow Bridge, start-to-finish, since I first did it as a teenager. I'd been back to the cliff quite a bit since then, but for some reason I hadn't repeated the entire traverse.

I clambered down the descent line, and set off across that gorgeous pocketed wall before the Pink Grotto, the strange sequence of upside-down solution pockets both familiar and at the same time distant. As I climbed, I thought about Philip Larkin's point that "truly, though our element is time / We are not suited to the long perspectives / Open at each instant of our lives.

The route was still here, exactly as it had been. I, of course, had changed. That's the thing about climbing; the routes stay largely as they are, but we don't. I thought about the blonde-haired boy who'd barrelled along here that late summer morning at the end of the last millennium. Who was he? 

I still knew him, of course, but he was far away in time and space, adrift in the twilight realm between memory and forgetting. I quietly admired him, though. I smiled when I thought about his endless enthusiasm for climbing, his courage and resilience. As the poet Geoffrey Hill said, "The boy I was / shouts Go!". 

The even younger boy who swam far out in Worbarrow Bay in an offshore wind that summer long ago prefigured the exploratory climber I'd later become. I made it back to shore that day because I didn't panic, understood the sea, and trusted myself at the same time.

A huge wave breaks over the top of the Sennen cliffs in West Penwith, Cornwall, in a Force 9 gale.   © Dave Pickford
A huge wave breaks over the top of the Sennen cliffs in West Penwith, Cornwall, in a Force 9 gale.
© Dave Pickford

Reminiscence, of course, wasn't going to help me get across Rainbow Bridge without going for an involuntary swim. I knuckled down and made the slight descent to the crux pitch. It's all slopers and awkwardly-placed footholds; it was trickier than I remembered from twenty-four summers ago. Perhaps that's one of the things about age; we forget how much easier some things were with the lightness of youth, and also how much harder life was back then. Philip Larkin, again, reminds us of "the strength and pain /Of being young; that it can't come again / But is for others undiminished somewhere". In climbing, as with so many things that involve risk and reward, Larkin's gnomic statement is profoundly accurate. 

Then, all too soon, there was a brief tussle with the actual crux - a deceptive hand-match on a weird diagonal hold - and suddenly the freedom of the groove that leads up and out to the next section. I'd crossed the mid-point of Rainbow Bridge. When I first passed this way I was at the beginning of things; today, I was somewhere in the middle of my life. What had gone before would not come again, and I couldn't know what might happen in the years to come. 

If I climbed this route again in another twenty-four years, I suddenly realised, I'd be approaching old age. I'd be exactly the same age as my grandfather was when he died, quite unexpectedly, one late summer afternoon. An afternoon perhaps not so different to this one. So what? I just hope that if I make it that far, I'd still be able to find my way across this most beautiful of climbs one more time. 

Continuing on, I took the high variation before the Terminal Zawn, swinging footless and fancy-free along that glorious line of widely-spaced holds, my feet arcing out above the sea. The swell sucked and hissed in the unknown ventricles of the cliff's deepest heart. We cannot know what is deep within those places, those submerged clefts in the underwater stone; they are the doors to a shadow-world beneath the sea that we may never enter, marking the strange boundary between what we can see and what we can only imagine. And we come closest to this threshold, of course, on climbs like this one.

The way was now clear to the Terminal Zawn. This final section of traverse is different to the rest of the climb. The movement is fine but the rock quality isn't quite as good. And the very last section - a short down-climb at the apex of the zawn to the big ledge on which the route ends - is actually quite dangerous. It's as if Rainbow Bridge, in its final metres, wants to remind us of our own mortality after the surreal, serene, almost otherworldly climb we have just completed. I climbed that last section carefully - very carefully - and took the final step down to the ledge. I breathed in deeply and exhaled. 


Climbing is much more than just a sport. It's a kind of ritual, a spirit-quest, a journey into the heart of your life. It could even be an art form. Deep water soloing is a style of climbing that comes closest to all these things. Like an astronaut experiencing weightlessness for the first time, with the gift of water beneath their feet the soloist enters a new realm in which the conventional laws of physics no longer apply.

Neil Gresham makes the first deep water solo ascent of pitch 1 (7b+/S2) of The Flying Dutchman (E7 6b,6b) on Lundy Island.  © Dave Pickford
Neil Gresham makes the first deep water solo ascent of pitch 1 (7b+/S2) of The Flying Dutchman (E7 6b,6b) on Lundy Island.
© Dave Pickford

Like Peter Pan in Neverland, climbers moving above the deep may transcend place and time, remaining ageless as they strive to master the shadow-world between the land and the sea. The great polarities of human life begin to swirl around us in this most sublime of earthly regions: love and loss, success and failure, innocence and experience. They are written down, these stories - all of them - in vanishing print on those imagined lines in the rock we climb, in the faces of our friends on and off the wall, and in the constant churn and surge of the sea beneath it all. 

Here, amid the edgeland between earth and water, we are possessed by the action of wave over stone, of wind against tide, of refracted light flooding the darkness of the chasm we enter. Here, we can find out what it means to be truly alive. And here, too, we can get a grasp on the crystal-clear certainty that one day, some day, we will die. 

This is the liminal game.

This essay will feature as part of a forthcoming book published by Atlantis Publishing. The Blue Cliff is a hardcover, full colour coffee-table book about sea cliff climbing in the British Isles that is focused on aquatic climbing exploits, especially deep water soloing, sea-level traversing and sea stack adventures. It contains literary and photographic contributions from pioneers including Dave Pickford, and will be published later this year.

UKC Articles and Gear Reviews by Dave Pickford

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21 Mar

Lovely article.

Might it be worth removing the completely surplus " free" from " free soloing" before it goes into the book?

22 Mar

I really enjoyed this. its fully ignited an interest in DWS and really brought the whole experience to life. Ive only done a little bit, and I love the sea. Maybe this year we'll make an effort to hunt some routes out. Thanks

22 Mar

"In 2017, I found a small zawn whilst paddling on the Pembrokeshire coast, close to Raming Hole, that had no recorded routes at all. <snip> The lefthand one was particularly good, but I didn't record any of them; I felt they were somehow more special left that way."

Hmmmm, so if you couldn't be bothered to record your routes, what's to say that someone else hadn't before you either? 🤔

Nothing, I imagine. I think that's Dave's point.

Editor: Dead Choughed rather than Dead Coughed, I think, unless the latter is some route I don't know named in punny homage?


24 Mar

Excellent read more routes are now on the bucket list ;-) and thank you.

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